Mayor Seeks Criminal Probe Into DC Rowhouse Fire That Killed 2

"The District will not tolerate landlords who prey on vulnerable populations, operating unlicensed rental properties and showing no concern for people's safety"

What to Know

  • A 9-year-old boy died Tuesday after a fire in an unlicensed apartment in Northwest D.C. A man previously died.
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser asked for a criminal investigation. Smoke detectors were broken and exits were barred.
  • "The District will not tolerate landlords who prey on vulnerable populations, operating unlicensed rental properties," the mayor said.

A 9-year-old boy has died after a fire broke out Sunday in an unlicensed apartment in Northwest D.C., and the city's mayor has asked federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation. 

The child died of his injuries on Tuesday, an official familiar with the investigation told News4. Another resident, a man, previously died. Neither person has been named.

The fire broke out in a rowhouse in the 700 block of Kennedy Street NW on Sunday morning, killing the man and leaving the child with grave injuries.

The overcrowded house where they lived was not licensed for any type of residential use, according to D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

The building was divided up into dozens of tiny living spaces, sources told News4. Many of the residents, who now are displaced, are Ethiopian immigrants who send money to their families.

Iron security bars on the windows prevented residents from escaping faster.

"They broke through the first door, they found a second door, and when they got there they ended up finding a locked gate. They had to get saws to be able to get through," said D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean.

Authorities have yet to determine an official cause of the fire, but said the rowhouse's narrow halls, broken smoke detectors and barred exits were a deadly combination. Even the building's front door was blocked by metal bars, which were ripped off as tenants screamed for help.

Court records list the building's owner as 61-year-old James Walker, who did not respond to inquiries.

The Bowser administration will refer the case to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney's Office for a criminal investigation, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday. 

"The District will not tolerate landlords who prey on vulnerable populations, operating unlicensed rental properties and showing no concern for people's safety," Bowser said in a statement.

Every D.C. resident deserves a safe home, the mayor later said at a news conference. 

"There is no amount of cheap housing that's worth losing a child," she said. 

DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah told city residents to reach out to the department if they believe their home is a fire hazard.

"I’d like to take this moment to remind tenants in the District that landlords must follow specific fire safety requirements," Chrappah said in a statement. "If you are living in a rental property that is not following these critical safety requirements, please reach out to us — which you can do anonymously — so that we can hold your landlord responsible and ensure that you are living in a safe environment.”

D.C. has a system to find and correct dangerous safety violations in apartments registered with the city. But illegal apartments — which do not undergo safety inspections —often go unnoticed until a tragedy occurs.

Last year, a landlord was found legally responsible in the deaths of two young people killed in a rowhouse fire near Dupont Circle in 2015. He was ordered to pay a combined $15.2 million to the victims' families.

The detection of potentially hazardous illegal apartments depends on renters to know their rights and neighbors to report anything suspicious, the DCRA previously told News4.

The DCRA says landlords are required to provide the following for residents:

  • Interconnected smoking alarms on every level and inside each sleeping area
  • At least one working fire extinguisher
  • Carbon monoxide detector
  • Exits, including doors and windows, that can be opened from the inside without the need for keys or any special knowledge or effort
  • Electrical outlets, switches and fixtures that work properly
  • For high rise buildings, a fire safety evacuation plan, along with fire drills at least once every year
  • At least one exterior emergency escape for every sleeping room below the fourth floor

Residents can call DCRA at 202-442-9557 to report issues.

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